Are States Deepening the Nation's Red-Blue Divide?

Some Democratic and Republican states are pushing more ideological policies, but not all.
by | April 24, 2013
 

There's recently been a flurry of discussion about how the expansion of unified party control and legislative supermajorities in the states has deepened the nation's red-blue divide. Observers often point to moves by increasingly unfettered Democrats and Republicans to push the policy envelope in the states they control as evidence of this rift, especially on hot-button social issues such as gun control and abortion.

Now that many legislatures are well into their 2013 sessions, we decided to review what kinds of policies are being approved in strongly Republican and strongly Democratic states. (We did not look at the legislative trends in swing states.) Our analysis found some clear evidence that policymaking in strongly red and blue states is diverging along ideological lines. But we also found a number of states in which lawmakers have passed up the opportunity to produce hard-line legislation, and a number of other states where outright moderation has carried the day.

Here's a rundown.

Democratic states that have taken a turn to the left

Much of the media attention on lawmaking in liberal states has focused on New York and Maryland, where both governors are widely thought to be considering a run for president in 2016.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose not to sit on his sky-high approval ratings and instead pushed for approval of a gun control bill that, among other things, expanded the state's existing assault weapons ban, mandated background checks on many private sales, set a limit on magazine capacity and stiffened some gun-related sentences. The bill prompted a backlash in Republican areas of the state, as well as broad concerns about whether undue haste made it impossible to iron out some technical challenges; Cuomo's approval rating has dropped, though it remains at high levels.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has also tackled gun policy; he plans to sign a bill that includes an assault weapons ban, magazine limits and other provisions. O'Malley has pushed several other major agenda items through the solidly Democratic legislature, including abolition of the death penalty and a hike in the gasoline tax. These moves followed O'Malley's successful push to approve 2012 ballot measures that legalized same-sex marriage and provided in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants.

While Republicans in the state have largely opposed O'Malley's efforts, the GOP has become increasingly marginalized. "Maryland is getting bluer in election results," said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Another blue state that has approved new gun control legislation is Connecticut, where the December mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School sparked a nationwide discussion about gun controls.

A legislative package crafted with bipartisan backing was signed into law by Gov. Dan Malloy this month. The measure tightens laws on assault weapons, magazines and background checks, as well as banning armor-piercing bullets.

Finally, in solidly blue Vermont, the state Senate easily approved the establishment of a driver's permit for illegal immigrants; the House is expected to follow. The permit falls short of a full driver's license, but it is designed to make life easier for undocumented residents. Meanwhile, Vermont's state House easily passed decriminalization of marijuana up to one ounce. That measure is expected to clear the state Senate later in the session.

Republican states that have taken a turn to the right

Just as some Democratic states have been working to tighten laws on guns, a number of Republican states have been trying to loosen them.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a law to let public schools, universities and colleges arm their staff with concealed weapons. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard also signed a law that authorizes school employees to carry guns on the job.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the legislature sent Gov. Jan Brewer a bill that would require localities to re-sell guns turned in during buyback programs instead of destroying them. Brewer, a staunch gun-rights advocate, has not yet said whether she will sign the measure.

In Alabama, despite opposition from business groups, the legislature is advancing a bill to allow workers to keep firearms in their locked vehicles while they are on the job. And in Alaska, the legislature passed a law that essentially nullifies federal gun laws within the state's borders -- an approach that many legal scholars consider unconstitutional.

Solidly red states have also pursued conservative legislation on abortion.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed several anti-abortion bills, including a ban on abortions after a heartbeat is detected, stiff new requirements on physicians who offer abortions, an outlawing of abortion for the purpose of choosing gender or avoiding genetic abnormalities, and the placement on the ballot of a "personhood amendment" that would define life as beginning at conception and bring the state into direct conflict with the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

In Arkansas, the newly Republican legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and enacted a law that bans abortions after 12 weeks. And in Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law tougher regulations on abortion clinics that are expected to make abortions more difficult to obtain. "The Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate are definitely not in a compromising mood," said Bill Stewart, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

Several red states have taken on somewhat more esoteric conservative concerns as well.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a measure to prohibit the application of foreign laws, including the Islamic law known as sharia. And the state House approved a ban on implementing the United Nations' Agenda 21 sustainability plan, which is decades old and is not binding on the U.S.

In Arizona, the legislature has approved a law making precious metals legal tender, a favorite of those who support gold-backed currency. The measure awaits Brewer's signature.

States that have been noticeably quiet

At least one Democratic-leaning state and a few staunchly Republican states have had comparatively non-polarizing legislative sessions in 2013.

Some of the states with relatively little ideological warfare so far this year are Minnesota, South Carolina and Tennessee.

In Tennessee, this may stem from the fact "that things have been pretty conservative here for a while, and there was not a whole lot of room for hard-right changes," said Anthony Nownes, a University of Tennessee political scientist.

States where moderation, or at least partisan gridlock, have trumped ideological zeal

North Dakota may have passed some of the nation's most staunchly anti-abortion laws this year, but the state also moved to sign up for the Medicaid expansion provided by President Obama's health-care law. That stance contrasts with other Republican states that have turned down the offer.

Similarly, ruby-red Idaho opted to set up a state-run health insurance exchange, another key provision of Obama's health-care law that is controversial among Republicans.

On guns, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah decided that his GOP colleagues had gone too far, vetoing a bill that would have allowed residents to carry concealed guns without a concealed weapons permit. The legislature has shown no desire to override Herbert's veto.

The mirror image of this came in Washington state, where the Democratic-run state House passed a bill to require some gun owners with protective orders against them to temporarily give up their weapons. The measure stalled when the GOP-controlled state Senate did not vote on the measure. (The state Senate did pass a different gun-related bill that mandates that individuals convicted of a gun-related felony register with law enforcement.)

Next door, in Oregon, lawmakers are considering a series of gun-related bills, but none address the more polarizing policies taken up by some of the bluer states, such as bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Meanwhile, the most liberal major policy change signed so far this year by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber may be a measure that allows illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates.

In two states, a Republican governor has faced resistance to proposed changes to the tax code -- not just from Democrats but from members of his own party as well.

In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence sought a 10 percent cut in personal income taxes, but ran into turbulence from Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal faced a revolt by legislators, including many in his own party, against his plan to eliminate state income and corporate taxes, replacing them with expanded sales taxes. Jindal backed off the proposal, though pieces of it may survive. The battle put a dent into Jindal's approval ratings.

The flip side of this pattern can be seen in Massachusetts, where Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick sought to boost spending on transportation and education through a tax hike and a more progressive tax code. Many lawmakers in the heavily Democratic legislature saw the $1.9 billion plan as too big, and they are now in the process of scaling it back.

"Overall, the governor has suffered something of a rebuke, but he will get some of what he wanted," said Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. "This is a significant piece of legislation, albeit much less sweeping than what was proposed and without the progressive tax reform."

At least two heavily Republican states -- Mississippi and Texas -- have seen a degree of bipartisan cooperation on charter school legislation.

The Texas measure, which would allow more charter schools but also enable the state greater sway in closing poorly performing schools, passed the state Senate by an overwhelming 30-1 margin. It faces a tougher road in the state House, but backers are more hopeful for action than in years past.

The Texas legislature had another bill that could have proven contentious, but didn't, thanks to a bipartisan compromise. The state Senate unanimously backed a bill to drug-test certain welfare recipients if the person has a history of drug abuse or if there is a reason to suspect drug use. Language in the measure that protects children from losing benefits if a parent fails the test was enough to bring on board the chamber's Democratic minority.

The most colorful evocation of Texas' bipartisan spirit comes from "purple Thursdays" -- an agreement by most of the 41 new state House members from both parties to wear purple once a week as a symbol of cooperation. The lawmakers wanted to set a different tone than the one at the start of the 2011 session, when Gov. Rick Perry urged rapid action on several highly contentious issues, including voter identification, trans-vaginal sonograms and a ban on sanctuary cities.

"While we are going to disagree on policy, the way the system works best is when Democrats and Republicans can work together," Republican Rep. Ron Simmons told the Austin American Statesman. "One of my goals is to try to promote civil discourse."

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